Why I Used to Hide my Mental Health Issues
Many do it for similar reasons, but it’s time for things to change
Over the past month, I’ve probably written ten or so articles on my struggles with clinical depression and anxiety. I’ve been transparent and honest, and quite a few people have praised me for it. They’ve said those articles helped them with some of their own issues. That’s a humbling thing to hear, especially considering helping others was only about forty percent of my motivation. This is selfish, but the remaining sixty percent was me forcing myself to open up more. I wanted to get over my fear of baring my soul.
I was diagnosed with clinical depression when I was fourteen or fifteen, but no one from my school got to know about it until a while afterward. I used to pretend to be fine, put a smile on my face, and laugh along when all I wanted to do was hug someone and cry into their shoulders.
I ran away from home. That was when I got taken to a psychiatrist and properly diagnosed. Consequently, I took a break from school for a couple of weeks. When I went back, I noticed a significant shift in the way people talked to me. My teachers had been apprised of my condition, and they’d apparently made some sort of announcement in class.
I’d always been a little different. Quieter, more diffident, an outsider. I wasn’t part of any popular group, and I wasn’t in the know about all the spicy goings-on at school (at twenty-one, what seemed spicy then now seems laughably innocuous). The simple reason for that was my introversion. I found it draining to talk to people, so I avoided human interaction as much as possible. I kept a low, private profile.
And therein lies the first of two major reasons I kept my issues largely secret for so long.
Being treated differently
I’ve never used my condition to obtain preferential treatment, never used it as an excuse or crutch. I don’t say or do anything for the purpose of eliciting sympathy or pity. That’s a point of pride for me, that despite being inflicted with a permanent, damaging disease, I’m still able to function as a regular part of society.
After I returned to school, however, that pride quickly began waning.
People were treating me like I was made of glass. And I’m not talking Plexiglas. I’m talking the thinnest, most brittle sheet of glass you’ve ever seen. There was one particular boy who used to apologize to me after making the slightest joke. “Don’t mind, okay? It was just a joke. Don’t run away again.”
Dude, I laughed at your joke. You know I value humor. Shut the hell up.
Not only students but most teachers also treated me with an annoying level of hesitancy, like they were afraid I’d snap in two if they ever raised their voice. I found the whole experience unnecessarily patronizing.
I don’t blame them, though.
Awareness and literacy about mental health have improved exponentially over the past five years. Back then, most students in my class probably hadn’t even heard of terms like “clinical depression”, “panic disorder”, and “generalized anxiety disorder”. Like me, they were just kids. They probably thought I was physically hypersensitive and would shatter into a billion pieces if they didn’t treat me like that. Or maybe I’d run away again and/or attempt suicide if I weren’t constantly coddled.
But here’s the thing. I’m just a regular human being, and I want to be treated like everyone else. I want no extra attention, no special treatment. Instead of helping me, they were alienating me even further.
Of course, not everyone was like that. I grew closer to a few students because they now knew why I looked so glum all the time. A few students didn’t treat me any differently. And a few students just didn’t care either way (which was fine by me).
But it wasn’t until I reached Grade XI that I felt truly comfortable. I’d taken Humanities and within it Psychology. The population of our section was low, and best of all, they were either conversant with, or interested in, mental illness. They knew the sort of stigma it attracted and weren’t about to add to it. Those final two years of school were my happiest. I felt like I truly belonged.
No one would like me if they knew the real me
Even then, I preferred keeping my issues to myself. I didn’t open up to anyone about my feelings, nor did I ever inform anyone if I was feeling particularly depressed or anxious. And even if I did, I never revealed why. For the longest time, I kept myself to myself.
Until I had a panic attack in class.
Everyone knew about my depression. But no one knew about my panic attacks. That was my biggest secret. I considered having panic attacks as being weak, and I couldn’t bear it if anyone else thought of me as weak. As a failure.
One day in school, I felt an attack coming. I knew it was only a matter of time. I held out as long as I could, but eventually, it came. I briskly walked to the front of the class and calmly excused myself to the washroom.
It turned out later, though, I’d run out of the class. And I wasn’t calm. I was shouting.
Our teacher sent a friend of mine to check on me. He found me hyperventilating on the bathroom floor. Soon, he got help, and I was supported down to the infirmary. I was crying helplessly. The doctor gave me some kind of injection to calm my nerves. My heart rate was apparently nearing 180, and he was worried I’d go into cardiac arrest.
Thanks, man, for scaring the hell out of me.
That class was suspended, and a few of my friends came down to see me. They even saw the self-harm marks on my arm.
So that was it. Now everyone knew. They knew I was weak, knew I was pathetic. Knew I was a hopeless failure. The shame I felt in that moment was immense. I was scared, too. I’d held a strong belief that if my friends saw me like that, they’d leave me. They’d be disgusted at my ugliness. They wouldn’t talk to me anymore. I was certain I was going to lose everyone, certain that now they’d seen the real me, they were going to abandon me.
Why I’m now completely open about my struggles
But the strangest thing happened. No one left. No one stopped talking to me. No one even treated me any differently.
Change is slow, and it’s deliberate. I knew I’d been mistaken in my assumption, but I wasn’t ready to change it. I realized later it wasn’t their problem. It was mine. I believed a lot of negative things about myself, and I was afraid if others knew about my struggles, they’d believe them too.
Now that I knew what the problem was, I spent the next three years changing my mindset. It was a gradual process, and has still not completely ended. But I’ve made some good progress, and stumbled upon some epiphanies —
- I used to believe I was who I was (“the real me”) because of mental illness. I allowed it to become my entire identity. I now realize I’m who I am despite mental illness. It’s a small part of a huge whole.
- Mental illness is not a choice. We’re born with it. Diabetics are not “weak”, and neither are people with mental illness. I didn’t choose to have a chemical imbalance in my brain, and the fact that I have it doesn’t make me weak.
- In fact, it makes me strong. People with mental illness have an inborn handicap. It’s like an invisible broken leg. If you have a mental illness and you’re still able to function as a normal part of society, it means you’ve overcome an extra challenge most other people don’t have to face. It means you’re strong.
- Because I believed mental illness was a choice, I felt guilty about it. That guilt was overpowering. It made me hate myself, and think of myself as inferior to everyone else. But again, mental illness is not a choice. It’s not your fault. Whatever disease you were dealt, it’s not your fault.
- I used to believe everyone was the same. Because that one kid had treated me differently in school, I thought everyone would do the same. But not everyone is the same. I’m now friends with a lot of people who don’t judge me or treat me differently because of my issues.
These five epiphanies eventually motivated me to write about my struggles, and I am humbled that the response has been so positive. I’m now completely open about my mental illnesses. I know a lot of you reading this don’t share your feelings for the same reasons I didn’t. But I took a chance, and I’m extremely glad I did. It’s time for you to take a leap of faith as well. There will always be people who’ll treat you differently, who’ll tiptoe around you. But that’s their problem, not yours. If you suffer from mental illness, you’re in a position to spread awareness about it. For me, that means writing articles like this one. I hope I’ve motivated you to find your method as well.
I am genuinely humbled by how much positivity I’ve received after I opened up about my struggles. It’s one of the reasons I’m doing much, much better now. I’m not saying everything’s perfect, but things have improved a lot.
I honestly believe if you become open about your struggles, if you become unafraid to be honest about them, it’ll help you immensely.
And it’ll help inspire others like you.